Not long after the news broke that NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, 13, had been killed in a helicopter crash on their way to her basketball game, Charles Howard was in a car with his own daughter, trying to hold it together.
Howard, 41, was taking Anna, 13, to her own youth basketball game, in Lower Merion, where Kobe grew up playing on a dingy court in a damp gully off Remington Road.
“I kept reaching over the passenger seat to hold her hand and savor every little moment, because you’re suddenly aware of how precious they are,” Howard said. “We lost a global icon, but in the fraternity of fathers and daughters, we lost a brother too.”
When he arrived at the game Sunday, he could see that other fathers felt the same way.
“I’m standing there with two other guys whose daughters are also 13 years old, and everybody is teary-eyed. There weren’t a lot of words, because it’s hard to find words for that kind of situation, and for this kind of tragedy,” said Howard, chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.
Anna plays basketball at Bala Cynwyd Middle School, and when she found out Kobe had played there as well, she requested (and received) his final number with the Los Angeles Lakers, 24. Older daughter Charissa runs cross-country, and Howard has a third daughter, Evie, just starting to play sports.
“He was a dad who loved his kids, like millions of dads who love their kids and coach them in soccer, basketball, or in another sport. The thing that’s pulling at my heart the most are the pictures of him on the sidelines with Gianna. That I totally relate to, and it hurts,” Howard said.
That reaction was widespread, said Bob Cooney, co-host of 97.5 the Fanatic’s 6-to-10 a.m. morning show, Farzetta and Tra.
“We had a lot of people contact us on Twitter because they were too choked up to speak,” said Cooney. “People on a personal level may not be able to relate to Kobe the superstar athlete, but many of us can relate to Kobe the father. We see him on Jimmy Kimmel, talking with such pride about his daughter, and that hits home.
"This is a guy who was on his way to a game with his daughter. The means are different, but on a basic level, it’s something we’ve all done with other parents in the carpool — ‘I’m going to the game, can I pick you guys up?’ When you break it down and look at it on a basic level, that’s what it is.” Five other crash victims were teammates of Gianna Bryant’s and their parents.
Other fathers echoed those sentiments.
“Of course it was devastating when [retired Phillies pitcher] Roy Halladay passed away" in the 2017 crash of a small plane. "That was really bad, and it hit my family hard. But the Kobe tragedy hit me harder, I think because of his daughter, the fact that they were on their way to a tournament,” said Glenn Master, who coached daughters Megan and Katie in basketball and softball. Both have been standouts at Atlantic City High School. One is in college, the other is on her way.
“By all accounts, he loved his daughters. You think about that connection, you think of how many times you’ve been up early in the morning and driven your kids to a game or a tournament. It’s a grind sometimes, but the memories you get from that are more than worth it,” Master said.
Some fathers appreciated the way Bryant, the NBA legend, seemed to set his own stature as a player and celebrity aside in order to encourage his daughters — incubating a love of the game and teaching the lessons that can arise from team play and competition.
“I get more joy from coaching and teaching my daughters [a sport] than I ever did playing it,” said Tim Leedy, who played football at William and Mary (with teammate, buddy, and current Buffalo Bills NFL coach Sean McDermott), and now coaches his daughters Mae (seventh grade) and Rylie (fifth) in the Central Bucks Athletic Association travel basketball league. He was on his way home from coaching Mae when he heard the news.
“There’s something special about watching your daughter grow and learn and develop as a player. I think for me, coaching, especially [for daughters] at that age, it’s not about wins and losses. It’s about getting the team better from the beginning of the season to the end,” Leedy said.
“'Did you work on what you needed to work on? When it was time, were you prepared to take the shot?' During the game, it’s not me out there, it’s them. They’re making the decisions, and to see them put in the work and see the results, it’s great," Leedy said.
Richard Cohen was an accomplished tennis player at the Haverford School and at Penn who taught his daughter Julia the game, and watched her flourish not just as a player but as a person. He said the father-daughter aspect of the crash that killed Bryant makes an already “chilling” tragedy “10 times worse,” and reminds him how grateful he is to have had that time with Julia.
“What’s important is the life experience that Julia got out of tennis. How to compete, and to try her best in things. To accept losing, to handle defeat. These are life lessons that I knew would help her personally and professionally,” said Cohen, who handed coaching duties over to professionals when his daughter was a teen. She went on to become one of the top 100 tennis players in the world.
Mike Goldstein, who runs the Main Line Girls Basketball Association, said coaching his daughters Abby and Sophia has contributed to some of his most treasured moments as a father.
“I’m a sports guy and was somewhat athletic in my younger days, and while I was not disappointed to not have a son, it certainly made it easier to have daughters that I could coach in basketball. That’s how we spent our time together,” said Goldstein.
The tragedy, of course, has particular resonance in Lower Merion, where they play.
“They were in the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium every year, and every year they were excited to get the new Kobe sneakers that he generously provided to them,' he said.
When other fathers ask about volunteering to coach in the league but express reservations about not having coaching experience, Goldstein has advice.
“You can go on YouTube and get decent coaching fundamentals. That’s not what this kind of coaching is about. It’s just about the time you get to spend with your daughters.”